I had the distinction of being the first Burns fellow to be sent to Germany on the condensed-schedule plan-- one in which I wasn’t attached to any local media organization and was instead only writing for the Wall Street Journal back home. The experience was shorter than the standard fellowship -- I stayed just five weeks -- which only left me wishing I’d stayed longer in the end.
The experience was a very positive one on every front.
My main mandate from the WSJ heading into the fellowship was to produce a package of Berlin-themed real estate stories for the first week in October, as the paper each month has a mini-section focused on a city or region around the globe. Beyond that, my only task was to find interesting stories around Germany, on most any area of interest.
I generally worked out of the Berlin bureau for the WSJ, a 10-person office right near the Bundestag. While I at first avoided the office due to its oppressive heat (it was 37 degrees and they had no air conditioning--despite claiming they actually did have air conditioning), when I did go into the office, it proved helpful. Largely this was because I could turn to my colleagues -- as I did quite frequently -- and ask them one of my never-ending list of questions about Germany or Berlin that would come up while reporting. (A sampling: What is the Berlin Senate? What is a green-red coalition? What was the economic miracle? Where do Berliners look to rent an apartment? Why does no one respond to email?)
Reporting, it turns out, is rather hard when you don’t speak German.
While I certainly didn’t head into the program thinking reporting would be easy as at home, I found it to be a quite slow process, particularly at first. Even with the aid of Google Translate (which has become a very fast and helpful reporting tool), it took a while understand how to search for things online that at home would have taken me minutes.
Tracking down contact information of people I was trying to reach proved far harder than in the US, and even when I did find someone’s email, then I ran into the apparent cultural barrier of innate slow response times. Some would get back to me two or three days later; others would wait a week. This would lead to relatively unproductive days, at least when compared with back home, but it was nothing too dispiriting.
Much of my frustrations were overcome once I eventually learned better to navigate. I got better at reaching people, I learned to more quickly search and read old stories in local publications (it helped once I figured out the personalities of the large newspapers, and which was the best source for specific types of news), and realized that calling people is often far easier than email.
In terms of reporting, much of my focus was on a variety of real estate issues, and I took time to meet with a variety of people just to chat broadly about housing and the office market in Berlin.
Gentrification in particular was of interest of me heading into the program -- and this is a topic on which most everyone in Berlin seems to have an opinion.
After a couple weeks, I figured out what the story makeup was going to be for the Berlin real estate section, and I focused on reporting three pieces: one on gentrification, one on the role of tech companies in the office market and one on the uncertain future of Tempelhof airport.
Beyond those stories, I searched for lighter stories, ultimately producing two. One grew out of an idea I came up with back in the U.S. and involved a trip to Rottweil-- a small town near Stuttgart--where I saw the world’s tallest elevator test tower under construction and one of the highest structures in Germany.
The other -- a piece on how Germans need to import garbage because they have an overcapacity of waste burning plants-- grew out of a general interest in Germans’ obsession with recycling and sorting. The reporting on the piece took a while, in part because it involved arduous adventures in Google searches in German in order to do background research. Reward came once it ran, when it went on our front page (it was an “ahed” - the WSJ’s quirky story that runs on the front every day).
One thing I didn’t do -- and wish I had -- was report on the migrant crisis. For the first two-thirds of my time there, it seemed there was relatively tepid editor appetite for stories on the migrant crisis, and there were already countless WSJ reporters throughout Europe working on it. Toward the end, when it started to become a more high-profile political issue and frequently was getting front page treatment in the U.S., I was too focused on finishing up my suite of stories I had already started reporting. In retrospect I should have pivoted and tried to pitch in or generate some of my own pieces.
With that said, watching the migrant crisis unfold from the seats of the WSJ’s bureau was a highly instructive lesson in foreign correspondence. During my time there, the mainstream US media effectively discovered a problem that had been brewing for years in Europe and one that was not new. But the ever-rising ranks of asylum seekers coupled with political drama (Germany versus former Soviet states), scenes of unrest (mobs of migrants crowding the Budapest train station) and fatalities (dead migrants piled in a van in Austria) turned what had been a side issue in which reporters would slowly write feature stories into one that became a hectic news production requiring daily coverage.
Beyond just the migrant crisis, the whole experience made me appreciate the art of being a foreign correspondent, in which the skill seems to be in framing a local issue in an insightful, ironic or fun manner for the audience back home. Being “first” is clearly not as much of a priority as it is for beat reporting in the U.S., and to the contrary, storylines need to gestate in the local press/public before they're ready to be exported. In retrospect this seems obvious, but it hadn’t really occurred to me until I was figuring out how to frame a story on gentrification--for years a hot issue in Berlin--for US readers.
Overall, regrets are few. Berlin was a tremendous place to be for five weeks; I stayed in Kreuzberg, mostly at an AIrbnb but also at a WSJ reporter’s apartment, and it was affordable and beautiful. I’m grateful I was afforded the opportunity to learn and report from there.
Here’s what we published